Zar (Zār) rituals have always been performed in secret in the past, as many believed the practice was associated with exorcism and demons. Most Egyptians would rather not have anything to do with Zar because they deem it evil and others just rubbished the ritual entirely placing no value on it.
Currently, Zar has transformed into a beloved art form that regular Egyptians ascribe different connotations to it while other people the world over now appreciate its artistic place in society.
The ancient practice of Zar is well known in Africa and Sub-Saharan countries and it is said to have arrived from Sudan to Egypt in the 19th century, during the reign of Ottoman governor Mohamed Ali. In the 1820s many Sudanese emigrated to Egypt.
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Zar rituals as a ceremony is used to cure an individual possessed by evil spirits, or jinn. The ceremony is performed to banish the evil spirit and to heal the person or people that are believed to be possessed.
Jinn appear in the Qur’an a couple of times, “so the notion that spirits occupy and, sometimes, meddle in the human realm is acknowledged by many in Egyptian society.”
When one is possessed with jinn, they exhibit erratic behavior every few months or at times years. This has led many to believe that spirit lives in the people it possesses forever. That is why Zar is important.
The ‘zar exorcism’ hinges on a drum pattern known as khuyut (literally “threads”) so drums and percussions are key to the ceremony while the participants move in circles. It is only by playing these instruments that the jinn can be summoned and appeased.
The instruments used to make the Zar music are “the tanbura (a six-string lyre) and the mangour (a leather belt embroidered with many goat hooves), among others.”
Traditionally, the ceremony is spearheaded by a woman who would sing and dance, all the while the ceremony is filled with incense in the air. The person that is possessed with the jinn is then made to join the group and imitate their movements. At the appropriate time, a rooster or chicken is sacrificed and the possessed individual for which the Zar is being performed for faints to the floor.
Many conservative Egyptians have criticised the practice of Zar and described it as “quackery” because of its historical sentiments of being associated with demons. Contemporary Egyptians, however, have tried to revive the art of Zar to prevent this aspect of their culture from going extinct entirely.
Today in Egypt only a few people still practise Zar as a ritual and hardly will people request a ceremony to exorcise a possessed person because it is associated with folk culture and seen as unorthodox.
Nonetheless, two folk music researchers have individual projects to revive the art of Zar reframing it as a unique art form that brings together Zar masters from the whole of Egypt.
Now, there are Zar concerts that focus on the music and singing and not on the original intentions of the rite as they have excluded the animal sacrifices.
There are three types of Zar although the lines between them can be blurred. The Sudanese Zar is performed by both men and women and uses the tanbura as its main instrument.
The second is the Upper Egyptian, which used to have all women performers, but lately some men participate in its performance as the number of women interested in taking part have reduced. The theme for the songs used in these two variations is spirits or “asyad”.
The third is the El-Ghitani Zar whose songs praise prophet Mohammed and other important Islamic figures and it is mostly performed by men.
The Mazaher band for Zar established by Ahmed el-Maghrabi, founder of The Egyptian Center for Culture and Art – Makan and Zakaria Ibrhaim, founder of El-Mastaba Center for Egyptian Folk Music, has established Asyad el-Zar (Zar Masters). These two researchers are trying to change the narrative surrounding Zar and so both bands perform regular Zar concerts each month.
Zar concerts are usually held in small, low-lit halls and Asyad el-Zar (established in 2010) and Mazaher (established in 2000) are two popular Zar bands that perform Sudanese and Egyptian Zars .
Darawish Abu el-Gheit is a group led by Ahmed el-Shankahawy that performs the El-Ghitani Zar. Their performance is augmented by a dancer to create a more spiritually charged atmosphere.
The efforts, studies and research by cultural institutions to preserve folk traditions should not be overlooked in any way because culture is a way of life of the people and it is important to appreciate it as it was and even as it evolves.